Lithium problems and uncertainties in Portugal

If some hang on to lithium, others argue that the future of the car is in the “fuel cell”, originating from hydrogen. Our country, it seems, is betting on both carts.

In the near future, we will certainly hear a lot about clusters [strategic areas for the change / transformation of the Portuguese economy], rows, de strategic sectors and some other terms that are associated with development concepts. This is because the Plan designed by Professor António Costa Silva (ACS) was commissioned by the Government.

Some media said that ACS has already delivered a draft of the Plan, even before its completion. It is expected to know the strategic areas around July 15th.

How many, we do not know, it is up to the Government to choose those that it understands structuring for the Future of the Economy. There should not be many, as already written here, under penalty of the Plan not being operational.

I hope that the cluster of endogenous resources of the country will have a place in this Plan - because, in my opinion, we have plenty of resources of various kinds to be leveraged -, here we understand resources not only the materials (lithium, hydrogen, wood, etc.), like many others, namely science, technical and engineering skills, art, in a word, the knowledge that the country has, not always well articulated, and that can / should be put at the service of collective development.

In fact, the pandemic has given us a beautiful example in health, bringing together science and companies. What is needed now is the design of a cluster dynamic health, putting all the pieces together.

The approach of clusters must, in turn, be guided by a specific methodological philosophy: the characterization of the way the different components should interact, aiming to identify the weaknesses (weaknesses) and the strengths (potential advantages), with a view to referring to the internal and external competitiveness of the products or goods potentially resulting from the activity of the companies , institutions and the State within the scope of cluster.

It is evident that the bet on a cluster it does not depend only on comparing potential weaknesses / advantages, it also depends on other factors such as access to finance, dominance or access to technologies, knowledge of the markets, role of the actors / agents and, on these aspects, in energy, for example, there would be a lot to say. Half a dozen large multinationals have the capacity to link knowledge and money. They are now in oil but in transition to renewables, as they have been in coal and in a few days they will take over hydrogen. These multinationals are the ones who “dominate” marine resources and will command their exploration in the future.

1. Why talk about lithium?

Lithium is a mineral resource that the country has with some abundance, especially in the context of Europe. It may become a productive chain to be developed within the scope of the strategic cluster of resources nationals of the ACS Plan.

Revisiting the media of the last 3-4 years, we found very “promising” titles about lithium. Let's revisit a few: Lithium: “white oil”; The energy of the future; Lithium “fever” in Portugal; Lithium can bring “Tesla” to Portugal; Government wants to have the first refinery of lithium from Europe (João Galamba on 17/11/2019); Attract a battery, cathode or cathode factory to Portuguese territory (Siza Vieira) powerwalls.

On 25/01/2018, the Government approved the lithium strategy based on a report by the working group, delivered in March of the previous year. “A mining promotion program to assess the country's existing lithium mineral resources and the implementation of two experimental metallurgical and demonstration units in a consortium with exploration companies to assess the economic viability of the value chain”.

Lithium is a metal extracted from nature by different processes, depending on its origin. If it comes from a mineral deposit, it is explored as in an open pit mine or in a gallery. If removed from salty lakes, by a process similar to the extraction of sea salt.

Obtaining lithium carbonate (an essential component of electric car batteries) is easier and cheaper when extracted from salt lakes. The large known lithium reserves are located in the salt lakes (Andes and Himalayas) and, therefore, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia concentrate 75% of the reserves worldwide.

Portugal, with much smaller reserves, coming from mineral deposits located in 11 areas of the country identified in the North and Center, is located in the top-10 of the main lithium producing countries in the World and in number 1 in Europe.

2. Lithium fever

Lithium fever enters Portugal with the launch of the electric car, as this metal has long been explored for ceramics and glass. The Felmica company, for example, handles about 85% of the lithium ore in Portugal, corresponding to 30.000 tons / year. This company has appraised reserves that give it to work, at this average, over 67 years, and reserves with potentials four or five times higher.

Portugal “woke up”A little late for this new use of lithium and advances at a snail's pace. They will tell me, rather than nothing. The problem is if you are, without a battery, on the side of the road, passing the opportunity to the side. Ten months passed between the report of the lithium working group and the Government's strategy. And from what has been made public, the advanced strategy lacks some vicissitudes.

The two experimental units (metallurgical and demonstration mining) will not have progressed at the desired pace, the consultation with the companies to receive concession areas has lost bureaucracy, nor has there been a better understanding with the populations or with some of the municipalities where the lithium resources, although the Government guarantees that it will comply with the recommendations of the environmental impact studies.

The lines of work in attracting foreign investment for the different stages of the productive chain do not seem to be listed according to priorities, and there is even hesitation in extending the productive chain.

The logic would be that the lines of the production chain of the chain extend, at least to the lithium refinery. Electric batteries indicate that, within the framework of European specialization, they will go to the center of Europe, where the major automobile producers are located. So many clouds are overshadowing the work plan.

3. But are batteries the future?

In the meantime, there is a great controversy about batteries versus hydrogen.

There are those who defend, for example those responsible for some brands like Mercedes, that the future of the car is in “fuel cell”, Originating from hydrogen. Our country, it seems, is betting on both carts. Don't the two bets collide? Or could they be complementary?

Some more. Germany has a strategic plan for hydrogen in which the aim is to be No. 1 worldwide. France has also said that its bet is on the hydrogen plane. He certainly measured strength and concluded that the dispute with Germany was difficult. A specific bet must be placed.

Portugal also has a strategic plan for hydrogen in partnership with the Netherlands. He claims to be open to other countries.

We have some theoretical conditions of advantage, especially in the competitive production of alternative energies, and this project requires a lot of energy consumption. In fact, the entire project fits into the energy transition, the decarbonisation of the economy. Without alternative energy it is a failed project. Germany is less competitive in this regard, despite major recent investments in alternatives.

Shouldn't Portugal think of a strategic partnership with Germany, given that it even has a successful tradition of cooperation in terms of investment?

Hydrogen is a bet to consider. To succeed would radically change the Portuguese economy. The European Commission also presents a strategy on 8 July. A subject to promise pages. Hopefully well-founded.

The author writes according to the old spelling.


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